Last year, Google gained international fame when its prototype quantum computer performed a calculation in minutes that, according to its researchers, would have taken 10 000 years in a supercomputer This corresponds to the definition of quantum supremacy: when a quantum machine does something impossible for a conventional computer

Thursday, China's leading quantum research group has made its own declaration of quantum supremacy, in the journal Science A system called Jiuzhang produced results in a matter of minutes calculated to take more than 2 billion years of effort by the third most powerful supercomputer in the world.

The two systems work differently Google builds quantum circuits using a superconducting metal superconductor, while the team from the University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, recorded his result by manipulating photons, particles of light

No quantum computer is yet ready to do useful work But indications that two fundamentally different forms of technology may outperform supercomputers will support hopes – and investments – embryonic industry.

Google and its competitors such as IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel and several large startups have all spent a lot of money developing quantum computing hardware in recent years Google and IBM are providing access to their latest prototypes on the Internet, while the Microsoft and Amazon cloud platforms each host a wide variety of other quantum hardware, dont Honeywell

The potential power of quantum computers comes from their building blocks, called qubits Like the bits of conventional computers, they can represent 0 and 1 of data; but qubits can also harness quantum mechanics to achieve an unusual state called superposition which encapsulates the possibilities of both With enough qubits, it is possible to take computer shortcuts that conventional computers cannot – a benefit that grows as more and more qubits work together

Quantum computers don't rule the world yet, because the engineers were not able to make enough qubits work together in a sufficiently reliable way The effects of the quantum mechanics on which they depend are very delicate Google and the Chinese group were able to stage their experiments of supremacy because they have managed to collect relatively large numbers of qubits

Google's experiment used a superconducting chip called Sycamore, with 54 qubits, cooled to fractions of a degree above absolute zero A qubit broke, but the 53 remaining were enough to demonstrate supremacy over conventional computers over a carefully chosen statistical problem It is not known exactly how many qubits are needed for a quantum computer to do useful work.; expert estimates range from hundreds to millions

The Chinese team also used a statistical test to assert their quantum superiority, but its quantum data carriers take the form of photons traveling through optical circuits arranged on a laboratory bench, guided by mirrors Each photon read at the end of the process is equivalent to a qubit, revealing the result of a calculation

The researchers reported measuring up to 76 photons from the Jiuzhang machine but on average 43 Members wrote code to simulate the work of the quantum system on Sunway TaihuLight, the most powerful supercomputer in China and the third fastest in the world, but it could not come close The researchers calculate that the supercomputer would have required more 2 billion years to do what Jiuzhang did in just over 3 minutes

The Chinese team was led by Jian-Wei Pan, whose large research team has benefited from an effort by the Chinese government to be more prominent in quantum technology Their achievements include demonstrating the use of quantum encryption over record distances, including the use of a satellite specially designed for quantum communications to secure a video call between China and Austria. Encryption rooted in quantum mechanics is theoretically unbreakable, although in practice it can still be subverted

One difference between Jiuzhang and Google's Sycamore is that the photonic prototype is not easily reprogrammable to perform different calculations Its parameters were indeed hard-coded into its optical circuits Christian Weedbrook, CEO and founder of Toronto-based quantum computing start-up Xanadu, who also works on photonic quantum computing, says the result is still remarkable as a reminder that there are several viable ways to make the quantum computation of quantum numbers work. «It is a milestone in photonic quantum computing», he says, «but also good for all of us”

Several different forms of quantum material are being developed in academia and industry. Qubits based on superconducting circuits are the most important, in part thanks to heavy investments from Google and IBM Quantum computers made from qubits based on individual atoms levitated in electric fields, called ion traps, are offered by industrial giant Honeywell and startups including IonQ, and are available through Amazon and Microsoft cloud services

Weedbrook, which put its first prototypes online for the first customers in September, says his team can make more flexible devices than Jiuzhang, and he thinks photonic quantum computers can soon catch up. They have the advantage of using the same components used in many telecommunications networks

Proponents of photonic quantum computing and ion traps say their technologies should be easier to scale than IBM's and Google's favorite superconducting chips, because they don't have to build their devices in ultra-cold refrigerators., no one knows for sure which form of quantum computing will prove useful first. «We all have pros and cons», says Weedbrook

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News – United States – China claims quantum supremacy

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